Monday, May 28, 2012

Observation vs. information

There's the difference between "information" and "observation."

An alert letting you know it's raining outside is information. Standing outside getting hit by drops of water under gray clouds while your brain melts from the earthy aroma, that's observing.

Both can be summed up as "it's raining outside." On a multiple guess test, you'd be hard-pressed to separate the two--but it matters.

Here's a piece of information--that rainy day smell comes from geosmin, and chemists draw it like this:

"Geosmin" means "earth smell"--that's information.
Letting a child dance under the first raindrops of a late May rainfall, letting her sniff the ethereal aroma, that's observing.

If a child is to have any hope understanding the natural world, she first need to observe it.

Yeah, ethereal is the wrong adjective there--
chemists use it to mean related to ethyl ether. That would be information.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The beauty of making things

A lot of people have asked me how they can get a trolley like mine to play with. And I usually say, "Why don't you just make one?

A child finds joy making things.
An adult finds release buying them instead.

One of the pleasures of compulsively tossing out words has been hearing from others.

Quilbilly is a science teacher who, not unexpectedly, likes to figure out how things work. I like to brew beer and fix typewriters, he likes to, well, smelt iron.

He wrote a lovely post describing his students' reactions to his hobby.
He makes it sound so simple:

"You really need just four things:
 iron ore (the right kind of dirt), charcoal, a furnace, and a source of air."

He's right, of course, but it's the process that makes it joyful.

"And there is nothing more profoundly simple than staring into the depths of the coals and thinking about nothing and thinking about everything." Quilbilly

Mr. Rogers loved children for who they are, for who we are, for what we are. He showed children "how people make things," taking the magic woo woo out of technology and putting it back into people's hands. Things like sneakers, crayons, and fortune cookies. Harmonicas and pretzels, zippers and fortune cookies. Jeans. Kazoos. Dolls. Flashlights. Erasers. Tortilla chips. Towels. Plates. Trumpets. And money.

Mr. Rogers fostered interest in our world, and his passion to make the world accessible to children created far more scientists than our current efforts to standardize education ever will. Quilbill's handful of iron gleaned from dirt reconnects children to the earth and stardust that make us possible.

Thanks to my sis-in-law Jan for the heads-up of the first video, which can be found on pictures for sad children.

Friday, May 25, 2012

NGSS: The first "S" means "science"

As I sink deeper into the morass of words that pretends to advance science in the name of economic security (which is like asking a flower to open in order to fulfill an order for FTD), I find comfort in reading  Walt Kelly's Pogo, a document at least as sophisticated as anything "managed" by Achieve, an organization of governors and business folks working to push "college and career readiness" as the primary purpose of public education. (They are starting to pay lip service to citizenry now...)

When you mix a corporate agenda with "science," you get oddly unscientific practices:
"Obtain and communicate information about..."

The above phrase appears nine times in the performance expectations of the prepubescent crowd (4th grade and under) in the draft of the Next Generation Science Standards. You could look it up.

Obtaining and communicating information is what business folks do. Science is not in the business of information, it's in the business of grasping how the natural world works. It starts with observation.

We're talking about children. The committee might consider renting one out, and setting it up on a beach somewhere. Observe what a young child does as she runs, crouches, runs, then crouches some more. She's observing. Sure, it's undirected, and yes, she'll need context and language and technological tools to help her along--but what she doesn't need is a formal education that confounds science with obtaining and communicating information.

We don't need science teachers and business leaders leading the charge here, we need child development specialists, we need pediatricians, we need Mommies and Daddies. Heck, we need could use a few children on the committee.

We got too much  Howland Owl, a pedantic pricklish sort, and not enough Porky Pine, a wise, if cynical, denizen of the swamp. I'd make Grundoon the chile woodchunk or his sister Li'l Honey Bunny Ducky Downy Sweetie Chicken Pie Li'l Everlovin' Jelly Bean the chair.

Francis W. Parker had a few words to say about this long before public schools fell prey to the agenda of careerists more interested in the dubious concept of "global economy" than the interests of America and its children:

I wish to earnestly protest against making school-children wander though a long desert and wilderness of words before a few of them, who intellectually survive, can have the inestimable privileges of direct observation found in the laboratories of universities. When pupils in the lower schools study science throughout the course there will be a hundred students in our universities where now there is one.
Francis W. Parker, Talks on Pedagogics

Maybe, just maybe, elementary school teachers know a tad more about the Grundoons of this world than do Eli, Bill, and Arne. Maybe, just maybe, they'll do what they have always done when faced with nonsense imposed from on high.

Put a nice poster of George Washington on the window, close the door, teach and explore the world together.

Yes, of course, communication is a huge part of what scientists do--
but it's what they do after the science is done, to share their observations, to keep them honest.

The Walt Kelly cartoons used without permission, but hopefully fall under educational use.
I hope the Kelly family agrees. Let me know if you don't--we've chatted before. =)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A reply to Anonymous

My "NGSS: Meet the  new boss" post got some responses by several cogent anonymous sources. 
Here's a response to one of them


Dear Anonymous,

The "author" has a name (/me waves to Anonymous), Doyle. While a few of your thrusts do indeed carry some truth, I am touched by the care you put into your thoughtful reply, and will take each point in turn.

It seems to me that the main problem is with this author's ignorance, poor reading comprehension, and hubris, not the standards.
I am plenty guilty of ignorance--I think any time spent with any of my hundreds of posts will show I gleefully share how little I know. My reading skills are reasonably OK for a public school teacher, but I do concede I have trouble parsing obtuse committee-speak. I draw the line at "hubris"--perhaps you meant raging egomaniac (for which I plead nolo contendre). Hubris requires more confidence than I can muster.

I don't think the author's evidently short attention span should dictate the level of complexity of the standards for K-12 science education. Did he think it would fit on a postcard?

Not sure what the point is here, but I will say this--give me a small enough font and a fine enough printer, I can fit the NGSS on the back of a postcard. I like postcards. Send me one!

Moreover, several of his comments suggest ignorance or illogical reasoning on his part, not that of the standards.

For example, the author wrote that sponges cannot move. This is incorrect. Sponges have two phases in their life cycles, one stationary and one mobile. Moreover, even stationary adults control their own structural movement.
All true, but I must confess that my point was not well-stated. To be more blunt, the definition of animal does not require the organism to move. A venus fly trap and a moss sperm both move, and neither is an animal.

Even that's not really the point--the point is that elementary school teachers will be using the standards, and as written, the standards will reinforce current biases.

The author also circled a statement about how most animals and plants use aerobic metabolism. He then complained that anaeorbic
[sic] metabolism is also possible, which in no way refutes or suggests the insufficiency of the circled standard. He also complains that the standard does not discuss the production of water, but the author again seems not to have read. The standard refers to carbon-based units of energy, such that aerobic metabolism would result in CO2, but not necessarily H2O. For the latter, the input energy source would need to be a hydrocarbon. Read.
Again, I must confess to sloppiness of writing, if not to thought--the standard, as written, may reinforce prior misconceptions. I think the rest of my comment, the part explaining why tying these processes to tangible matter such as water in order to make it more real for a child, was the main point. (I live with a real writer, and she points out that it's my responsibility, not the reader's, to make the point clear, so I will work on that, dear Reader.)
Moving down the list, instincts do not require conscious thought. The author's use of a non-cognitive reflex to suggest that "non-cognitive" = "reflex" is suggestive of the author's poor reasoning skills. Then again, perhaps the author is cognitively burdened when appreciating aesthetics.
Again, the thrust of my words is about language, not science--the NGSS folks say "Some responses to information are instinctive--that is, animals' brains are organized so that they do not have to think about how to respond to certain stimuli."
The "that is" refers specifically to the preceding clause, implying that "instinctive" means "not having to think," which is, alas, too broad, and feeds the common misconception that animal responses are mechanistic.
My wife would agree that I am "cognitively burdened when appreciating aesthetics." She's more succinct. She thinks I'm a lout.

And I am. A loud, proud lout at that. But she's been working on it--I even know who Shakespeare is now.

I'm the lout on the right.

This nonsense continues throughout the author's whole review.

He seems not even to understand subject-verb agreement. For example, he cited a standard that reads, "Each distinct gene chiefly controls the production of specific proteins..." and then suggests that means "one gene, one protein." How is it that he doesn't comprehend "each gene" (singular) paired with "proteins" (plural)? The standard CLEARLY does not suggest "one gene, one protein." READ!

Yep, I've already had a trained geneticist from Columbia nail me on that one--I left it up to tame my raging egomania. It's good for the soul to be dead wrong on science now and again. Still, the standard implies that we know what "gene" means now--and that gets murkier as we learn more. Enlighten me.
 Your point on grammar, though, needs a little refinement--I think you meant that I have issues with subject-object agreement. Email privately if you'd like a lesson.

The author might have valid feedback to offer on the draft--which is presumably the point of submitting the drafted standards for public comments--but he fails to demonstrate any such feedback in this article. In fact, I wonder if his reading comprehension is impeded with some pre-existing bias against the standards.
"The author" attempted to give feedback via the NGSS website, and found the process a bit onerous, onerous enough to fire up the ol' amygdala. I don't have a "pre-existing" bias--I have an existing, well-earned bias against Achieve, which managed to waste thousands of hours of student lives with an open-ended exam here in Jersey that was so bad it was never officially scored.
I enjoy the exchange, and look forward to more.


Michael "The Author" Doyle

The first illustration is by Banksy, I think, and I believe CC, but will delete if otherwise....

Monday, May 21, 2012

A story about basil

Last August, various bees sniffed among our basil flowers, seeking nectar.

Pollen grains stuck to their fuzzy bodies, which they carried to nearby plants and half the chromosomes of one plant joined with those of another. Not sure if the bees or the basil felt anything special, but these acts of communion give me joy.

The fertilized flowers dropped their show-offy petals, their opulence no longer needed once the union was complete, and the flowers got down to the business of making seeds.

Come fall, after the first hard frost, I stripped the dried flowers from their stalks.

In idle moments, I'd unwrap the seeds from the dried flowers, tiny hard black secrets holding next spring's promise.

I gently blow the chaff away from the seeds, and put them away in a small brown bag, tucked in the pantry, hundreds of living organisms, dormant, waiting for the sunlight.

Back in March, when the sun was just starting to win its battle with the dark, I sprinkled a few seeds on a tray of peat moss. Tiny green leaves erupted.

A week or so ago, we put our seedling in the ground, and they've been busy using the sun's energy to grab carbon dioxide from the air, to make more leaves.

Last night we ate the first of this year's batch, as we will, grace willing, until the next hard frost come November.

I am getting older, as we all are, but not the basil, living a lifetime between frosts.

And if there's a point to the story, to our story, we can find it in the basil.

We just have to look.

No point trying to grasp the intricacies of photosynthesis if you cannot see the flowers.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

What we risk losing

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I watched a grackle along the edge of our ocean yesterday.

It gallumphed down the surf's edge like a drunken sandpiper, got smacked with a wave, then fluttered back to the top of the now receding wave.

Over and over again.

I sat on the sand with Leslie, and we chatted about our grackle as it battled the wash. I love grackles, hands down my favorite bird, and this one was being particularly grackly. What would possess a bird to challenge the edge of the sea?

After a few minutes, the grackle answered my question--it nabbed a writhing sand crab, then picked it apart a few feet away. The grackle got its reward, and we got our story.
The sand crab did not fare as well.

There is a risk challenging those who hope to transform public education into data farms feeding the intricate morass we still call economics. 

Look at the humorless smiles of those running the show, the lupine grins of Arne Duncan, of Bill Gates, of Eli Broad. They may even believe what they are spewing--it takes a certain lack of humor to get to reign over the destruction of things that matter.

They can hurt you, and will if you pose a threat to their goals.

But that's not the risk I am talking about. As much fun as it is to pretend otherwise, a few words shared among a very small community of teachers poses no threat at all to the ed "reformers" who value power over democracy.
  • The risk is falling into their language, into their world, into their ethos. 
  • The risk is spending too many hours poring over their dull documents (Next Generation Science Standards, anyone?), trying to parse out meaning of individual phrases when we should be calling out the process that created such a document.
  • The risk is weighing an offer to make real money sitting at the table breaking bread with them under the hum of fluorescent lights.
  • The risk is not losing the battle--I am not so blind not to see that any remnants of "public" and "democracy" are likely to be crushed for the foreseeable future--the risk is losing ourselves.

I am a happy person, blessed with the grace of a grackle wrestling with the ocean for its food.
I am a mortal person, as doomed as the sand crab picked apart by the grackle.

A grackle will still be wrestling with the ocean long after I am gone. So long as grackles continue to be grackles, our children will have larger stories to learn than the ones foisted on them in the name of the global economy.

It takes little courage to tweet in an echo chamber. 
Live well, be part of your community, grow some food, use your hands, love.

Bill Gates from Seattle Weekly
Grackle from Wikipedia via CC 3.0 by mdq

Saturday, May 19, 2012

NGSS and Achieve

I have been nipping at the heels of Achieve for a flawed draft attempting to push their corporate world-view into public schools. The board of Achieve is made up of "leading" state governors and high level businessmen.

You can squeeze crap into a platinum tube trimmed with gold, but when you squeeze it out, it still stinks.

I may be unfair. It may be that no committee can create the kind of document a teacher needs to effectively teach to a specific group of kids.

Individual teachers, however, create these sorts of documents daily--we call them lesson plans. We tailor them for our classes, playing to our individual strengths, adapting to the real-time assessments good teachers do every minute of class time.

When you're ready to listen, give one of us a call....


Here's a list of their contributors:

More NGSS sputter

The Next Generation Science Standards draft has a mindset error.

We all carry myths. We tend to separate the science myths ("facts") from cultural myths ("stories"), but there are lots of basic science ideas most of us get wrong most of the time even when we can easily observe the contrary evidence.

If you read the above without specialized knowledge, it implies at first glance that we need telescopes to see planets. A careful reading dispels this, since obviously the moon can be seen without a scope, but if you're an elementary school teacher without a background in science you may not be aware that several planets are quite obvious in the night sky.

That we can see Saturn easily in this particular part of the world surprises most folks.

That stars are points of light, and remain points of light even in powerful scopes (excepting a few monsters like Betelgeuse), also surprises most folks. Telescopes add little detail to stars (though the color may be more obvious).

How do I know? We have a sidewalk astronomy club at our school--we go outside and look.

So how can we do better?

How do we know a star is a star and a planet a planet? Can a young child tell the difference without a telescope? Does this even matter?

Children learn early on that "knowing" certain things matters in class. The NGSS standards, like the current NJCCCS here in Jersey, perpetuate this nonsense.

Knowing how we know things matters far more in science than any particular fact.

So back to our stars--what can a child see?

Go out and find Saturn tonight--now compare it to the stars. There's a difference. Stars twinkle. Saturn does not.

That may be all a young child needs to know to fuel her curiosity.

Now maybe in high school, we can prattle on about discs vs. points, refraction, and all kinds of nonsense, but for a young child, learning how to compare and contrast matters far more than creating a Sherman who can recite facts (and no doubt do well on a standardized test).

Sherman was a damaged child

This confusion about what matters is endemic in the New Gen standards.

Noam Chomsky would have a field day with this document--the language, upon close reading, is both factually "correct" yet feeds cultural misconceptions.The NGSS confounds animals with mammals, electromagnetic radiation with visible light, physical change with chemical, creating an oddly worded document that values its own internal structure more than the universe it purports to unveil to our children.

If we're going to get science right in public education, we need to get it right at the early grades. A child needs permission to observe freely. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Et tu, College Board?

"The College Board was founded with a deep commitment to equity and must play a critical role in helping all students achieve high academic standards to thrive intellectually and to compete in a global economy." 
We. Are. Screwed.

I am resisting a very obvious, funny caption here--

David Coleman, the "architect" of the Common Core standards, has made a career at pretending that public education is about making careers. He's gotten very rich doing this.

He's never taught in a public school classroom.
He's never "competed in a global economy."
He's never raked clams.

The College Board may well be committed to equity now, but that was not its founding goal. You can read its founding goal on the College Board website:

The SAT replaced it in 1926.

I do not know much about Mr. Coleman, and he knows even less about me. But I know a bit about public ed, and I when someone's fibbing.

Arne Duncan loves him. So does Jeb Bush.

He also said this:
[A]s you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.
Maybe that's true in his world. Maybe that's why the College Board needs to pay over $600,000 $1,000,000 for its CEO.

But I do, and so do a lot of others.

Your in my space now, Mr. Coleman, and you're screwing with my kids, kids who currently pay $87 a pop to support your salary.

I suspect you'll be hearing more from me.

There is a very short list of people with whom I'd never break bread, even if I were offered a million dollars for my trouble.. 
A former President is one of them. Mr. Coleman is on the list. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


I proctored our state end of course biology state exam today.

At least somebody's profiting from all this

I watched the passive resignation of young adults who finished a pointless section in less than half the time allotted, then sat there on a mid-May morning.

They were polite--they've been trained to be.
They were silent--they've been coerced to be.
They were compliant--it's what we want them to be.

I felt dirty.
I went home and planted a few moonflower seeds I had soaked overnight.
So it wasn't a totally wasted day.

By KeepOpera, CC 3.0

But I had no right, none of us do, to subject children to a test that does not count for anything, when they, too, could have planted moonflowers.

And in July, as the sun is starting its journey back south, and the fragrance of a blooming moonflower under a full moon makes me brave again, I'll remember this sin, and ask forgiveness.

At least I can fearlessly teach science until the end of the year now.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

NGSS: Meet the new boss

This is too much science for one post--
I'll get around to splitting it up but wanted to toss it out there now since we only have 3 weeks to comment on the proposed standards.

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

I've started plowing through the  Next Generation Science Standards draft.

We, the public, have all of three weeks to comment on a document so confusing it comes with an article and a video on how to read the document.

When you get to the document, you get 87 pages of color-coded (at least 9 shades at my count and I'm color-blind) jargon with DRAFT splashed across each page.

You don't have to get too far, though, to find subtly major problems, the kind that condemn elementary school kids to a lifetime of ignorance.

Chemical reactions produce new substances; physical changes do not. 

Melting and freezing are physical changes--this is a tougher concept than it appears, which is all the more reason we need to get it right in the lower grades.
Most of my time as a science teacher is spent helping children unlearn. Turns out unlearning takes a lot more practice than learning.

Sponges are animals, too.

And they don't "move around."

My sophomores think "animal" means something warm, fuzzy, and mobile. So do a lot of their teachers. 

Humans (and other animals) can, in fact, release energy from glucose without oxygen.

We cannot meet all our energy needs this way, of course, but plants, animals, and bacteria all share an ancient pathway called glycolysis ("splitting sugar") as the first step in extracting energy from organic compounds.

If you're going to mention that breaking down sugars produces carbon dioxide, why not mention the water part as well? Make this stuff real for a child. A child can grasp the idea of water. A teacher can show her that water "comes out of" fires. (Flash a propane torch against a cool sink faucet--you will get a flush of condensation.)

Instinct is not the only thoughtless response to stimuli.

If you touch a hot stove, you'll pull your arm back before you're even aware that it's hot. That's a reflex, not an instinct.

This is a trivial point, I suppose, but we shouldn't tolerate sloppiness in a document that purports to be the woo woo of wisdom.

Please stop feeding the children the idea that energy means movement.

I suppose this may be tossing a bone to Vygosky's zone of proximal development--kids can "see" where the energy goes--but we're fueling the idea that energy means movement. I thought Sir Isaac took care of all that a few generations ago.

(Also, anaerobic respiration does not follow a different chemical pathway--it follows a shorter one. Aerobic respiration is preceded by glycolysis. We're more connected to bacteria than we know....)

The one gene, one protein model is dead, and has been, for a long time.

We have fewer than 25,000 genes, we have over 100,000 proteins--do the math.

(The authors caged their language here with "chiefly"--so this isn't so much wrong as misleading.)

 Food molecules do not react with oxygen--electrons stripped from food molecules do.

Oxygen is not "captured"--it diffuses in with about as much sophistication as a fart traveling across a room.

The carbon dioxide we breathe out gets stripped off the food we consume long before the remaining electrons are picked up by oxygen to form water. Again, I trust that the authors knew their biology, but simplified it for the standards. Language matters.

 If you do manage to find the time to peruse the document, reserve a good chunk of that time to make your comments--
The survey competes with the document for clunkiness.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Light again

May 11th is special to me--we're in the sunlight now, and will be for 3 months.
This was written a year ago, and it works again today. We only get so many Msys in a lifetime.

"Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."
Theodosius Dobzhansky

I should be crafting a descent with modification (misnamed "evolution") exam.

Descent with modification is the heart of biology. Without it, a world with red-lipped batfish, roly-polies, and humans makes no sense, no matter how clever God pretends to be.

Without it, nothing in biology makes sense. Nothing.

Seems sacrilegious to test it using vocabulary and a few standard examples any student paying attention can just fly through half aware of our universe.
I walked tonight, crushing thousands of insects and worms, breathing in microbes, watching squirrels and starlings and dogs and robins and humans go about their business.

A cherry tree late for the party dropped a few last petals on my head.

Mosquitoes paraded around my tiny pond, blissfully unaware that soon it will be filled with young fish born in a tank in Room B362, trapped by glass they learned to avoid, soon to be munching on the young wrigglers laid today.

Sunlight bathes us now, and everything that buzzes or tweeps or flaps or gurgles has forgotten that darkness was ever possible. At least I have.

And if I can forget, despite centuries of words telling me of death and of destruction and of entropy, well, what hope does the fledgling robin I saw bouncing around the Green yesterday have of grasping how serious this all must be.

Seriousness is a human conceit.

It's May. I going to listen to the fledglings for now, as long as now lasts, as long as the sun continues to bathe us with grace.

Red-lipped batfish--really, how serious can we be if red-lipped batfish exist?
The red-lipped batfish photo from PBS here.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Hubris and humility

The primary social consideration for savants is purely and simply one of professional duty. Savants are people who are paid to manufacture science; they are expected to manufacture some; they feel it is their duty to manufacture some....

The spirit of truth is nowadays almost absent from religion and from science and from the whole of thought.

Simone Weil, The Need for Roots

Any chance of me becoming a researcher ended the moment I pulled the head off a living cricket under a dissecting scope because, well, I was told to.

And now I teach my lambs about DNA polymerases before they can see the difference between a dandelion and a plantain, because I am told to.

And that's wrong. Not illegal, and maybe even not immoral. But it is wrong. I won't pull heads off a living creature, and I shouldn't be wasting a child's life on polymerases before they know about the plants they walk on.

Why? Because a child is a child for finite hours.

Despite all the nonsense that has been going on in Jersey, I work under a reasonable and bright principal, and a team of building administrators that give a damn enough to allow real discussion.

Meanwhile, the state has confused me with a super hero, able to overcome poverty in a single bound. 

I'm supposed to teach science, and I'm pretty good at teaching what passes for it. If I ever managed to get a child to grasp the awe that surrounds us, though, I'd fully expect that child to just get up and walk out of class--she can learn a lot more staring at a patch of earth outside the building than pretending to know something about polymerases.

So far, no one has done this. This surprises me.

They're that well trained--Mr. Cerf would be proud. They may not be college ready, but Lord knows they're career ready.

Whose life is it anyway?

And yet they sit there.
OK, Simone Weil makes no sense in January, and too much sense in May. 

Cricket photo from The Pest Advice

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

I've been slimed

Every day I am asked what the secret is to ensuring every child in New Jersey graduates from high school ready for college and career, and I always have one simple response – outstanding teachers.

I do not  doubt that you have "one simple response"--I do doubt your sincerity.

At a small meeting last spring among a few other teachers, and the Governor himself, you said that teachers were the most important factor affecting student success.

I said, perhaps a bit too pointedly (politeness is not my strong suit), that teachers are the most important factor in the building, but that poverty weighs more heavily than teachers do.

The Governor jumped in and said that you said "in the building." I did not hear that.

And here you go again.
I began my career as a high school history teacher, and I can honestly say that I never worked harder or felt more rewarded than I did during those four years.

Why did you leave, Mr. Cerf?

We as a state should make sure that we celebrate outstanding educators every day for their work with our children and for developing the next generation of leaders.
Providence knows we need them. Our current leaders need a few lessons in civility, in history, in analysis, and most of all in love.

But I don't just teach "the next generation of leaders," Mr. Cerf, I teach children. I teach the next generation of plumbers, of soldiers, of clerks, of attorneys. I teach the next generation of doctors and line workers, of ball players and police officers. I even teach a few destined for incarceration, for cruel endings despite living in a land blessed with fertile soil and decent water.

But mostly I teach the next generation of Americans, and perhaps the last generation of Americans, who have reasons to dream of a lofty experiment in government that trusted people, because it was once made of the people.

It is ridiculous, of course, to expect leaders to agree with everything I believe. It is not ridiculous, though, to expect a man like Mr. Cerf to serve openly and honestly, to work for the best interests of all children, not just those he cares to mold for his corporatocracy.

I teach in a public school, Mr. Cerf.
Do you even  know what "public" means anymore?

And Mr. Cerf does add the "in-school" clause later. He knows it's true.
Cerf photo from here.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A world divided

I was forbidden to accept science and still believe in the lyrical poetry, the song that pushes the dance of cosmology or the story of descent with modification -- first by the science teacher and then by the church....

I never chose between the two and, on some level, I've never felt at home in either world.

Science is not about the "real" world but about the natural world--and there lies a world of difference. Your science teacher was mistaken when he divided the world.

The church, too, is mistaken, when it seeks to cleave what we want to be true from what we know to be true. The prophets lyrically warned us, but we do it anyway. (Which is, I guess, the whole point of prophets.)

If science is seen as a process--and it is, a particular process of developing stories to help us grasp the natural world--then "scientific belief" is nonsensical.

Art and science are both better defined by process than by ends--no one asks me if I "believe in" Picasso's Guernica. It's a silly question.


Neither science nor art require "belief" and neither invalidate any particular belief systems that tolerate truth. Both art and science are dangerous because both privilege truth.

This is why I believe in taboo. There are some things humans best leave alone, in science and art.

The Picasso piece is obvious; the other drawing is by Charles Darwin--turns out we're all related.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

I don't believe in gravity, either

I may have more trouble with those who "believe in" evolution than I do with Creationists. At least the Creationists are upfront about their deliberate ignorance of the empirical.

If you think that the poster is an effective argument for evolution, then you may not quite grasp the profundity of gravity either. That things fall is obvious. That all things made of stuff are attracted to all other things made of stuff, not so much.

That there is a predictable relationship between all matter in our universe is a bigger deal than many who "believe in" gravity grasp.

There may be some confusion about religion, too, a confusion exacerbated by those who would distinguish spiritual from religious.

Natural selection, by itself, is obvious. Living things have heritable differences. Some living things are more likely to reproduce than others, partly because of these difference. Those that reproduce pass their qualities on to the next generation.

You need time for complexity to evolve, and time we have.

But complexity is not the "goal." We are not headed towards a higher being, just a different one, possibly more complex, possibly not.

When a child gets this, do not be surprised if she goes into a trance for a day or a week. A child who gets this will feel her universe shift under her feet, her place redefined, her sophomoric cynicism squashed by awe.

Some folk call that a religious feeling, and it is. 

Grasping evolution changes our relationships with the living world around us.

Darwin's reasoning does not need to supplant God, and for many it does not. The theory of evolution does, however, supplant the need for a superior consciousness (or any other sort of consciousness) to guide the development of the beasts we call human.

It takes more than a class or two for a kid to get this, but there's no mistaking when one does. She's the one who's gone silent, stunned.

Natural selection is deceptively easy to grasp. It's not the concept that most of us resist. It's the implications. Evolution has no goal.

We're no more evolved than the earthworm, the mushroom, or the E. coli in our guts.

The jumping lamb is from Life is Physics Not Mathematics.
It's all good--we're all a part of this universe thing, and that's just awesome!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


“It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.” 
Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle

The increasing light, the returning horseshoe crabs, the bay rising, falling, and rising again, remind me what I'll forget again in a moment. If I were not mortal, the forgetting would not be sin.

But I am, and it is.

Bealtaine again.